NORTHEAST HARBOR, Maine -An enormous pile of rubble consisting of charred wooden beams, blackened bricks, twisted girders, and scorched scraps of personal possessions left behind when residents fled was all that remained Wednesday of three buildings that burned on Main Street.
Firefighters from more than a dozen Hancock County towns had responded to the Tuesday morning structure fire on Mount Desert Island that injured a paramedic when a propane tank outside a restaurant exploded.
The fire gutted the restaurant where it is believed to have started, as well as two adjacent buildings that each housed art galleries, displacing 23 people in all.
The remains of all three buildings were torn down late Tuesday after firefighters determined they were structurally unsound and should not be left standing. Many of the firefighters stayed all night, spraying water on the demolished rubble for a few hours and then making sure the smoking pile did not reignite before leaving the scene around 10 a.m. Wednesday.
According to a press release issued Wednesday by the town, the combined total assessed value of all three buildings, each of which was insured, is approximately $1 million. The Kimball Boutique, which was just north of the burning buildings, had heavy smoke and water damage, and a separate apartment building behind the restaurant is uninhabitable, the press release indicated.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, people walked along Main Street to view the fire damage. Orange plastic fencing, plastic sawhorses and traffic cones were set up to keep people away from the rubble pile.
The owners of the restaurant, The Colonel’s Bakery & Deli, said Wednesday they planned to start cleaning up the site right away and to rebuild as soon as possible. They hope to be open for business next summer.
“I’m ready to start the cleanup process and get Main Street Northeast Harbor back to the way it should be,” Mark Reece said Wednesday. Reece owns the business and property with his wife, Stephanie Reece.
A construction crew from Southwest Harbor arrived at the scene Wednesday afternoon with a fleet of dump trucks and, with the use of two backhoes, began cleaning the site up and hauling the rubble away.
Stephanie Reece said the past two days have been “rough” on her and her husband, but that the worst was Tuesday morning when they didn’t know whether the 19 people living upstairs from the restaurant had all escaped safely. Learning that they did was a big relief, she said.
“It put things into perspective,” she said. “Property can be replaced.”
Stephanie said everyone has been “great” in providing support to the couple. Mark Reece expressed thanks to the firemen who prevented the fire from spreading down the block.
Reece, who with his wife bought the deli from his father Terry Reece five years ago, said their early morning cook, Tim Holland, knew something was wrong as soon as he arrived at work around 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.
“He opened the [front] door and noticed an odd smell,” Reece said. “He checked the kitchen and dining room and didn’t see anything.”
Still, the smell was unusual enough that Holland went upstairs immediately to wake up and evacuate the building residents, who worked at the deli and at the Route 66 restaurant on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor, according to Reece. The fire alarm went off as Holland went upstairs, rousing everyone from their sleep.
Holland stayed Tuesday night at the nearby Kimball Terrace Inn and was thought to be staying there again Wednesday night. He did not return a message requesting an interview.
The cause of the fire officially remains under investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, but many residents and officials are not hopeful the cause ever will be determined due to the extensive damage.
State fire marshal investigators did not come to Northeast Harbor on Wednesday, according to Fire Chief Mike Bender.
Attempts Wednesday to contact the owners of the Joy Building, which was one of the three destroyed in Tuesday’s blaze, also were unsuccessful.
The owner of Wingspread Gallery seemed less intent Wednesday afternoon on planning to rebuild than on recovering items from the pile of rubble that used to be her art gallery and, in the apartment above it, her home.
Thistle Brown was assisted by friends and her insurance agent, Randy Merchant of Merchant, Needham & Associates, as she dug through the pile looking for personal items and art pieces that she wanted to save. John Goodwin Jr., whose construction firm is cleaning up the site, operated a backhoe to help dig through the pile for things Brown might want to rescue.
Items Brown and Merchant pulled Wednesday from the pile of wet and charred debris appeared to be blankets, pieces of porcelain plates, some fabric bags and a scorched piece of sculpture, among other things.
Brown declined a request to be interviewed by the Bangor Daily News.
According to local officials, she was awakened Tuesday morning by police Officer Chris Wharff, who was the first emergency responder to arrive at the scene. Wharff went upstairs in the smoking building and got Brown out safely before the flames spread, they said.
Brown has owned or co-owned Wingspread Gallery for more than 40 years.
There was good news Wednesday about Jim Wilmerding, the paramedic who was injured Tuesday morning when a propane tank outside Colonel’s exploded. Douglas “Scamp” Gray, president of Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service, said Wilmerding has shown visible signs of improvement since being taken Tuesday to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“He’ s doing very well,” Gray said. “The prognosis is that he’s going to be fine.”
Gray said he did not think Wilmerding was struck by any debris in the explosion. He said Wilmerding was at the fire scene as a precaution in case anything happened and his services were needed.
“Obviously, anything can happen,” Gray said. “It took him right off his feet. It was probably the concussion from the blast.”
The blast was fairly significant, according to residents and firefighters who were there when it happened. It blew one propane tank lid, which measured about 30 inches in diameter and weighs about 50 pounds, more than 100 yards away. It landed in the back of a pickup truck parked at a Neighborhood Road business.
“We got lucky on that one,” Bender, the Mount Desert fire chief, said Wednesday. He said it was remarkable that no one besides Wilmerding seemed to have been injured in the blast.
Bender estimated that, all told, about 60 firefighters from all over Hancock County helped prevent the fire from spreading down the block. He said the brick construction of the Joy Building probably helped prevent the fire damage from being worse.
“That really helped contain the spread,” Bender said. “It could have been a whole different story if that had been a wooden structure.”
A gap that Bender estimated to be about 14 feet wide between Wingspread Gallery and the boutique Local Color also helped keep the fire from spreading south along the row of stores, he said.
Bender and Gretchen O’Grady, emergency services deputy director for the Pine Tree Chapter of the American Red Cross, said their agencies have been assisted by the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency. Ralph Pinkham, director of HCEMA, helped coordinate Tuesday’s mutual aid effort and secure generators and other equipment for the firefighting effort, Bender said.
According to O’Grady, Pinkham also is helping to contact federal officials about replacing the documents that were lost by foreign workers who were working at and living above Colonel’s. About 10 of them, all from Eastern Europe, left behind their passports, work visas and return plane tickets when they fled the burning building early Tuesday morning.
The European workers have been offered jobs and living quarters by Ocean Properties, which owns and operates several hotels in Bar Harbor.
O’ Grady said Sen. Susan Collins’ office has offered to help the Europeans replace their lost documents.